Minnesota’s Hidden Intercity Bus Network

The current schedule for one of the two competing Rochester-MSP shuttle operators.

The current schedule for one of the two competing Rochester-MSP shuttle operators.

There was a time when buses and trains connected the Twin Cities with every corner of Greater Minnesota. The trains are gone except for Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which has become quite unreliable and inconveniently runs west of Minneapolis in the wee hours. Except for its express link to Chicago via Eau Claire and Madison, Greyhound has completely withdrawn from the state where it was founded in 1914. Locally owned Jefferson Lines has filled many of the gaps, but conventional bus service has become sparse, mostly bypassing the small towns and running only once or twice daily.

The dreary state of traditional intercity public transportation is the direct result of competition from the private automobile. It has driven the rural buses out of business—except it hasn’t. Under the radar, a fast, frequent network of scheduled private shuttle buses and vans has appeared. Their purpose is to feed the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. These airport services ignore the downtowns completely. The only other destinations they sometimes serve are the Mall of America and the VA Hospital, since both are close to the airport.

The service frequency is unprecedented, greater than ever before. Rochester now has two companies offering competing hourly non-stop service to MSP. St. Cloud has two competing carriers that together provide something close to hourly service. The Duluth carrier runs 12 times daily, as does Willmar and Eau Claire. Mankato and St. Peter have 6 daily round trips. There are additional smaller cities that see less frequent service. Here’s the list of towns served:

Albany, Albert Lea, Albertville, Alexandria, Austin, Avon, Baldwin, Baxter, Becker, Bertha, Big Lake, Brainerd, Browerville, Camp Ripley, Cannon Falls, Clarissa, Clearwater, Cold Spring, College of St. Benedict, Cyrus, Dodge Center, Duluth, Eagle Bend, Eau Claire, Elk River, Glenwood, Hewitt, Hinkley, Hudson, Le Sueur, Lewiston, Litchfield, Little Falls, Long Prairie, Mankato, Melrose, Menomonie, Monticello, Morris, New London, Northfield, Oronoco, Osakis, Owatonna, Paynesville, Pine Island, Rochester, Rogers, Sauk Centre, Scanlon, Spicer, St. Charles, St. Cloud, St. John’s University, St. Peter, Starbuck, Wadena, Waseca, Willmar, Winona, Zumbrota

Compared to traditional intercity bus fares, the new carriers are expensive. These are small vehicles, so the cost per rider is higher. Compare them to the fares of the surviving traditional carriers. One-way from Rochester is $27 (Jefferson $22), Eau Claire $39 (Greyhound $21), Duluth $42 (Jefferson $32), St. Cloud $43 (Jefferson $18), Winona $45 (Amtrak $24), Brainerd $55 (Jefferson $32), Willmar $65 (Jefferson $25), Alexandra $65 (Jefferson $32). Round trips are usually discounted somewhat.

I first researched these schedules two years ago and there have been fairly significant changes since then. A couple of carriers have exited the market. Others have added destinations and there has been some consolidation. Most notable has been the increase in service. As I read the schedules, there were 57 daily round trips in 2012, and that has grown to 97. Besides the additional trips to MSP, now carriers are starting to feed Rochester from La Crosse, Winona, Albert Lea and Mankato.

Creating a real network

Whether the fares are high or not, this is indeed a transportation network and it’s already in place. Granted, it is single purpose. It is not interconnected or coordinated. However, with a modest amount of corporate collaboration and a little public investment it could become a true regional system.

Consider what could cheaply and easily be done. The connections to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul are already there. The Blue Line LRT runs every 10 minutes to Minneapolis and the Mall of America and limited stop Route 54 runs every 15 minutes to St. Paul. From those places you can reach much of the metro area.

Here are more steps that would increase ridership.

  • Provide seamless user information on single website like Metro Transit’s trip planner. This will open up the option of multi-carrier trips through the metro from one outstate city to another.
  • Market the individual services collectively as a system.
  • Consolidate airport staffing (each carrier currently has its own agent). This will reduce cost.
  • Coordinate arrival and departure times to reduce competitive duplication, and facilitate carrier-to-carrier transfers at the airport.
  • Subsidize fares for seniors, low income persons or even the general public, or offer to buy unused seats at a discount.
  • Move the airport terminal to the bus terminal above the LRT station (the shuttles are currently at the other end of the Lindbergh parking garage) to encourage transfers to Metro Transit.
  • Locate pickups at local transit centers in cities like Duluth, St. Cloud, Winona and Rochester to encourage transfers with local transit providers. Coordinate schedule times to connect with local transit.
The shuttle ticket counter at MSP.

The shuttle ticket counter at MSP, located at the west end of the Terminal 1 parking ramp.

The airport bus station, at the other end of the Terminal 1 parking ramp, directly above the LRT station. That's the #54 to downtown St. Paul.

The airport bus station, at the other end of the Terminal 1 parking ramp, directly above the LRT station. That’s the #54 to downtown St. Paul.

I want to emphasize that the carriers would remain separate private companies. The state would simply add value by selectively investing in a service that’s already viable. The private carriers’ bottom lines would improve through lower costs, additional riders, better service coordination and joint marketing. Could it actually happen?

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.